art, book reviews

A review of Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, by Alice Robb…

Several months ago, I went on an Amazon book downloading spree. That’s when I discovered Alice Robb’s book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, published on February 28, 2023. I purchased my downloaded copy on March 11th, and just now finished reading Robb’s fascinating book about the world of ballet.

I started reading Don’t Think, Dear last month, as we were coming home from our trip up north. I remember being delighted as I dove into the new book, which instantly captured my attention. Robb writes this book from the heart, as she was, herself, a serious dancer when she was growing up. For a time, she even studied at the School of American Ballet, which was co-founded by famed Russian born, but ethnically Georgian choreographer, George Balanchine. Mr. Balanchine is considered the “father of American Ballet”. He also founded the New York City Ballet, and was its artistic director for over 35 years.

Don’t Think, Dear, is a look at American ballet, particularly at the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. Robb writes about the many hardships ballet dancers endure so that they can be on stage, looking incredibly graceful, athletic, and powerful. She profiles some legendary dancers like Gelsey Kirkland, Alicia Alonso, Suzanne Farrell, Misty Copeland, and Margot Fonteyn. But, Robb also writes about less famous dancers… ones who spent their entire youths working toward a goal of being employed as professional dancers. Only a few achieve that elusive goal, and many are left with permanent injuries, physical scars, and emotional problems at the end of their quests.

George Balanchine was famously picky about how his dancers were to look. He liked the women very thin and leggy. While today, artistic directors and choreographers are less blunt when they tell a dancer she needs to “lengthen” (lose weight), Balanchine would actually bark at them to “eat nothing”. If a previously anointed dancer fell out of favor with him, he would ignore her completely. As Robb points out, some of the women– like Gelsey Kirkland– would go on to develop severe eating disorders and addictions. Balanchine was also very jealous of his dancers’ attentions. They weren’t really allowed to date, unless they were dating him. If they did, Robb claims their careers suffered for it. Balanchine married and divorced four times before his death in 1983, and he had many other love affairs– all with his dancers.

Gelsey Kirkland dancing for “Mr. B.”

In between “vignettes” of famous and not so famous dancers, Robb writes about related subjects. For instance, she includes a very interesting passage about pointe shoes, and what it takes to break them in properly. Pointe shoes aren’t cheap, but new ones have to be beaten into submission before they’re any good, and that means doing everything from shaving them to putting them in boiling water. And even after that, they are extremely uncomfortable and leave dancers with bunions, broken toenails, and bleeding cuts on their feet. Someone did come up with a more comfortable shoe, but apparently dancers who use them are seen as wimps. Or, at least that’s what Robb implies. If you aren’t wearing your painful Capezios, you aren’t a serious contender.

Suzanne Farrell dancing Mr. B’s choreography as a Sugar Plum Fairy.

A couple of criticisms…

By her own admission, Alice Robb was a somewhat mediocre dancer herself. Yes, she got into the School of American Ballet, which was in and of itself an achievement. But she didn’t stand out from the crowd, and mostly just got small parts in the annual Nutcracker production. She does not possess the rare qualities that make someone a contender for a career as a ballet dancer. I’m not sure if that reality colored her view of ballet as a whole. I did get the sense, however, that Robb sort of has an ambivalent opinion of ballet.

Yes, there are some very admiring portraits of great dancers and their stories. Some of the benefits of studying ballet are discussed in Robb’s book. She writes about the feeling of flying when a dancer has a strong partner, and the thrill of being able to do more pirouettes with help from a male dancer. However, she also includes a lot of negatives about studying ballet.

Robb implies that dancers are basically conditioned to be extremely compliant by their very strict teachers. I came away with the idea that dancers are often prey to abusive, predatory men, or are basically beaten into submission by teachers who tell them not to “think”, but to “do”. Robb writes a lot about dancers who had to quit dancing due to injuries, as well as dancers who simply couldn’t cut it because of things they couldn’t help, like the ability to “turn out” properly or “bad feet”. And yet, in spite of all of that, Robb still dances “casually”. Obviously, there were some positives for her.

But overall, I liked it…

I enjoyed reading Don’t Think, Dear. I’m definitely not a dancer, so nothing Robb wrote was a threat or insult to me. I appreciated that her writing was good and mostly engaging. She includes a lot of sources for additional reading; I even ordered one of the books she referenced, even though it’s out of print. She also includes quotes from books I’ve already read, like Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave and Hilde Bruch’s The Golden Cage. The book is clearly well-researched, both by other written accounts and observations, as well as Robb’s personal experiences with ballet. I don’t regret falling down the rabbit hole of ballet through Robb’s pen, even though I thought it might be more of a personal memoir than what it is– basically a look at the world of American ballet.

So why did I read this book?

No, I’ve never taken a single ballet class myself, but I was exposed to ballet from an early age on account of my eldest sister, Betsy. Betsy is 13 years older than I am, and when I was very young, she was a pretty serious ballet dancer. We lived in England, which gave her the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School. She was accepted, and finished high school by correspondence. Then, while we were still in England, Betsy moved home to Virginia and started college… all on her own.

Betsy kept dancing for awhile after her year in London. I remember meeting her exotic dance friends and attending their performances with my parents. I was enchanted by the music and colorful costumes, although it probably took awhile before I appreciated watching the dancing itself. I did once try on Betsy’s pointe shoes… and I don’t know how anyone could stand to wear them for more than a minute, let alone dance in them.

Years later, I ended up studying voice at the Eastern Virginia School of Performing Arts, which was primarily a ballet school run by a husband and wife. My teacher, Ron Boucher, is a dancer, but he was also a professional singer in New York. His wife, is Sandra Balestracci, and she has trained many wonderful dancers. She is also the mother of one. But before Sandra taught ballet, she was a great dancer herself. She even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I loved taking lessons with Ron, and watching the beautiful young dancers in their studio. I envied their discipline, grace, and youth, even though I was still in my 20s at the time, myself. So, you could say I’m a “fan” of ballet. I admire it, even if I can’t do it. 😉 Kind of like I’m a fan of women’s gymnastics, even though I’ve never so much as turned a decent cartwheel. Sigh… I miss performing arts.

Anyway…

I liked Don’t Think, Dear by Alice Robb, although I see it kind of gets mixed reviews on Amazon. Some people found the book too “wandering” and “rambling”. I suspect some of the people who read the book were looking for more of a personal story, rather than a general look at stories about ballet dancers. But, as someone who is just a ballet fan, I think the book is interesting and insightful. I would recommend it to those who are intrigued by it. I certainly have more respect for ballet dancers now that I’ve read Alice Robb’s expose.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of Misty Copeland’s Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina

Apologies… Misty Copeland came up in my Facebook memories today, and I remembered that I reviewed her book a few years ago. I meant to repost this earlier today, but I just thought to do it now. It appears as/is, so read this as if you’re reading it in October 2015.

I have never in my life taken a ballet class.  My oldest sister, on the other hand, was great at ballet and studied for many years.  She even got to study at London’s Royal Ballet School when she was a teenager, thanks to my dad’s Air Force assignment in England.  Though I myself have two left feet, I was often dragged to ballets when I was growing up.  Now that I’m an adult, I appreciate watching dance, though I’d hardly call myself a fanatic.

Some time ago, I read an article about Misty Copeland, a rare black ballerina in a sea of white dancers.  Misty Copeland is an extraordinary talent.  Though she didn’t start dancing seriously until she was 13, she ended up becoming a principal at New York’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT).  Copeland has written a book about her experiences growing up in California with her brothers and sisters, her mother, and several stepfathers/boyfriends.  For some time, Misty and her family lived in a motel where they ate what they could afford and what was easy to prepare.  Copeland was far from someone anyone would expect to become a professional ballet dancer.  And yet she is.

I had not heard of Misty Copeland before I read the article about her.  Her book was mentioned in the article, so I decided to read it.  I found Life In Motion a quick and easy read.  It was mostly entertaining and decently written.  Copeland’s story is really one about someone who defied the odds to become something no one ever believed she could be.  Although many people would like to believe racism is going away, Copeland writes that she faced some discrimination as she learned her craft.  At the beginning of her book, she describes her role as the Firebird as she says to herself, “This is for all the little brown girls.”  Then, she launches into how she managed to become “an unlikely ballerina”.

I found myself reacting pretty strongly as Copeland writes about her mother, a beautiful biracial woman who was once a professional cheerleader for the NFL.  Though she doesn’t come out and say it, I think Copeland’s mom probably suffers from a couple of character disorders.  Copeland writes that her father, a man she stopped living with when she was two years old, was her mother’s first husband’s best friend.  

When her parents’ marriage broke up, Misty stopped seeing her dad.  It wasn’t until she was an adult that she got to have a relationship with him.  Misty’s mother’s biological parents were young when she was born.  Her mother was Italian and her father was black.  They gave her up for adoption and Misty’s mother was raised by a black couple who died when she was young.  Consequently, Misty’s mother’s upbringing was very unstable.  Misty’s father is also biracial; he is the product of a German woman and a black man.

Once she’d left Misty’s father, Misty’s mother married Harold, the alcoholic father of Misty’s sister, Lindsey.  Though Misty loved Harold like he was her real dad, Harold turned out to be irresponsible and abusive.  So there was another divorce and the family moved on to the next “dad”, which produced a brother, abuse, and yet another divorce.  All of this family upheaval would be a lot for any kid to deal with, yet Misty was able to find a better place in dance.  Misty was discovered through a dance class at the Boys and Girls Club.  Through that class, she was referred to a local dance teacher, who helped her.  Misty lived with her first ballet teacher, Cindy, for two years; there, she was introduced to stability, better food, and the ability to sleep in a bed.

When Misty’s mother decided she didn’t like Misty’s living arrangement with the teacher, she demanded that Misty move back to the motel.  Noticing how very talented the girl was, Cindy encouraged Misty to try to get emancipated from her mother.  Mom responded by hiring Gloria Allred, who put the kibosh on that arrangement.  Fortunately, Misty had done so well in ballet that she was able to launch into her career anyway; she got scholarships to pay for her training.

In fact, she eventually did so well that she was even noticed by Prince, who used her in his “Crimson and Clover” video and in a number of his live shows. Being a Prince fan, I was very interested in reading about her experiences with him.  She also writes about living with Isabel Brown, mother of Leslie Browne, a ballerina who starred in the film The Turning Point.

Overall, I enjoyed Misty Copeland’s book, although the second half of it seemed to include a lot of name dropping.  It almost felt like the story sort of ended after she joined ABT, with the exception of her comments about working with Prince.  Also, the book ends rather abruptly.  When I finished the text, I was actually surprised, though that was temporarily stayed by the photos at the end of the book.  

Reading this on Kindle, I noticed that the text ends at about 75%; the last quarter of the book consists of notes, acknowledgements, and the index.  I also think Misty brags a lot.  Yes, she was a prodigy and is enormously talented.  She writes that over and over again.  It’s noticeable and off putting, or at least it was to me.  Also, I noticed that when she didn’t do well, she blamed either injuries or racism.  In fact, she claims that racism was a major part of her struggle to become a dancer, yet when I read her book, I read about someone who managed to work with people like Prince and Debbie Allen.  Only one ballet company rejected her, the New York City Ballet.  She claims it was due to racism; but could it have been for another reason?  I think so.  No one bats 1000 every time.

Still, I admire what Misty Copeland has accomplished, especially given her tumultuous childhood.  I think the title of her book is very appropriate.  The writing could be better and I could have done without the bragging, self promotion, and name dropping.  But I appreciated her story and would recommend her book to those who are interested.   Out of five stars, I’d probably give it three and a half.

Misty Copeland in action.

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bad TV, Netflix

Tiny Pretty Things is cringeworthy viewing…

Once again, I’m going to avoid some of the serious topics bouncing around in my head today. The news is chock full of potentially explosive things to write about– everything from the fact that Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin finally recognized Joe Biden as our next president to a haunting story I read about a middle aged adoptee from Romania, born during Ceausescu’s reign of terror. And, of course, COVID-19 is a topic for every day, too… but I’m sick of writing about that, and much of what I would write is stuff I’ve already written.

Instead, I’m going to write about Netflix’s latest “YA” series, Tiny Pretty Things, which was made available for streaming on Monday. Now, I’ve been a Netflix subscriber for years. I started when I was in graduate school, at Bill’s prompting, when the service involved renting DVDs that were sent in the mail. I quit for a few years when we had cable TV, then enrolled again when we moved back to Germany. I quit again for awhile, when I couldn’t get around the VPN filters and all of the content in Germany was in German. Then, when 13 Reasons Why came out, I resumed my membership. I hated 13 Reasons Why, by the way. I thought it was vastly overhyped and never bothered to watch the second or subsequent seasons.

If a ballerina falls in the forest when no one is near, does she make a sound? Oh brother… (that’s not what she actually says, but it’s kind of close and just as stupid…)

However, even though I have Netflix, I don’t watch it as much as I should. I often go months without logging in to watch anything. I have yet to see a single episode of Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things. I have seen The Crown, but I just now watched all four seasons of it in a massive binge. I frequently get reminders from Netflix to log in and use my membership. This week, I was lured by an ad for Tiny Pretty Things, a drama supposedly aimed at teenagers about very dysfunctional teens studying at The Archer School of Ballet, a “prestigious” ballet school in Chicago.

The first episode made me groan. The writing was very cheesy and melodramatic, with lots of hackneyed expressions that were intended to be clever, but came across as dumb. The storyline was ridiculous. Talented dancer, Neveah Stroyer (played by Kylie Jefferson), from Englewood, California is plucked from obscurity to learn how to dance for the big leagues. Her mom is in prison for killing a man who “hit her baby”, Neveah’s older brother, who is now in a wheelchair.

Lauren Holly, who is 57 and looks like she’s had work done, or at least a few collagen injections, is a ballet madame called Monique Dubois who is running the school. She comes off as snooty, fake, and kind of cruel. The kids are multicultural and there’s a veritable rainbow of boys and girls (who are actually all in their 20s) of all shades and sexual orientations. Many of the “actors” are actually dancers in real life, and they are much better at dancing than delivering their lines. I think Kylie Jefferson is a pretty decent actress, and she’s also a legit dancer, but most of the rest of them are not very convincing in their roles. They don’t look like they are the teens they’re supposed to be, and they aren’t good actors.

What really gets me, though, besides the ridiculous storyline involving a dancer who was pushed off a fourth story building and survives, languishing on life support to be the narrator (a la Mary Alice Young in Desperate Housewives), are the huge number of sex scenes, copious nude scenes, drug references, and, yes, I’m just gonna say it– the language. Everything I’ve read about Tiny Pretty Things indicates that it’s intended for a YA audience. That means it’s for teens, and teens encompass an age group ranging from 13 to 18. In most cases, there’s a huge difference in the maturity level of a 13 year old and an 18 year old. And yet we’re supposed to be okay with kids watching a very dark and macabre series about a ballet company planning a dance about Jack the Ripper? Meanwhile, there’s also a cop with a French braid sniffing around, trying to figure out who pushed Cassie Shore, the ballerina narrator who is actually in a coma, from the roof.

I don’t have children, but when I was growing up, my parents let me watch almost anything I wanted to watch. Every once in awhile, my dad would attempt to stop me from watching something he found inappropriate, but most of the time, I watched anything and everything that interested me. Consequently, I saw a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn’t want a child of mine seeing. I don’t know how different the world is for kids today… I can only imagine that it’s very different now. Still, it does seem a bit much for 8th graders to be watching a nude gay sex scene and listening to talk of blow jobs. When I was 13, I didn’t even know what “getting laid” meant, let alone what a blow job is.

There are some rather gory dream sequences and, at this point, I’ve also seen a closeup of a pretty necrotic looking injured foot that I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing. Aside from that, one of the choreographers is very pervy and sleazy. Watching him makes me think of Larry Nassar.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the cast is so inclusive of people who aren’t white or straight. I do enjoy watching the dancing, too, much of which is beautifully done. But all watching this show has shown me so far is that you don’t have to be a rich white kid to be shown as really fucked up and on TV. It also makes me think that if I’d ever had children, I would not want them to be involved in ballet, even though my sister was involved in ballet when she was growing up and this adaptation probably doesn’t even venture close to representing the norm.

I didn’t think I would get past the first episode, it made me sigh so hard. But I did end up watching several more episodes, mainly because I had nothing better to do yesterday. I’ll probably finish this season, but if it gets renewed, I probably won’t bother with any subsequent ones. Besides the gratuitous sex scenes, the acting is pretty cringeworthy, and the storyline is both very cliched and rather implausible. I’d rather watch 80s era episodes of Fame, which included plenty of cheesy acting and dance numbers, but at least it was somewhat clean.

Tiny Pretty Things is based on a YA novel, which has just got to be better than the show is. It’s just got to. It appears that the authors, Sona Charaiprota and Dhonielle Clayton, have made it into a book series that got popular, hence Netflix’s decision to turn it into a series one can stream. It appears that, as usual, the books are better than the on screen interpretation. I might one day be persuaded to read one of the books, just to see how far the streaming series has sunk.

I have a lot of tolerance for bad TV, but this series is really pretty awful, and it makes me roll my eyes a lot. As an adult, the sex scenes don’t trouble me too much, but I don’t think they’re particularly appropriate for young teens. I might have had less of an issue with that, though, if the quality of the show was better and the sex scenes didn’t feel like they were added to flesh out a thin and ridiculous premise. And the acting and writing both suck enough that I wouldn’t recommend Tiny Pretty Things to almost anyone else, either, at least not if they’re looking for something that is legitimately high quality. On the other hand, if you want to watch something cringeworthy, Tiny Pretty Things might be just the ticket. I think I’d like to watch it with my friend Joann, who has a real knack for critiquing bad TV in a hilarious way.

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